Amateur superhero – When Robbie Dale nearly became an FA Cup legend

As a place, Blyth can be strangely polarising. The wind can whip in off the North Sea creating an eerily grey and seemingly inhospitable atmosphere. Like most northern industrial towns, the scar of heavy capital is there for all to see. Power stations, turbines, and chimneys dominate the skyline.

Blyth may only be around 17 miles from Newcastle and half a dozen from popular and more welcoming coastal suburbs like Whitley Bay and the affluent Tynemouth, yet the area has a sort of intangible detachment to it, sort of an end-of-the-world feel that amidst globalisation, Thatcherism and the decline of heavy industry, some people simply forgot to care.

The haltering of said decline has attempted to be instigated via retail, which has culminated in a race to the bottom of discount retailers, pound and charity shops alike. On a typical North-Eastern grey day, there is a real sagging weariness lingering in the air.

Yet when the sun comes out Blyth feels an entirely different place. The expansive sandy beach can look stunning and becomes lined with dog walkers and day-trippers. The town seems to momentarily sprawl into action and you’re left wondering where on earth all these people have come from. It’s a scene of what could be.

This prelude sort of leads me perfectly into the career of Robbie Dale. Almost certainly the greatest non-professional British footballer of the 21st century.

On the 3rd of January 2015, the sun shone on Blyth and not just in a meteorological sense. Local hero Robbie Dale had lit up the FA Cup 3rd round game versus Championship Birmingham.

It was a sporting arena that on paper, he had no right to be on. In an era of young footballers being scouted as soon as their umbilical cords have been cut, Dale inexplicably slipped through the net, never on the books of a professional team, never even going for a trial, at Blyth for 14 long years.

It seemed so bizarre that such a player still existed. Even Jamie Vardy, whose rags to riches story continues to enthral, had spent his childhood on the books at Sheffield Wednesday, turning down a short-term contract with Rotherham before rising the leagues.

Yet on one of English footballs most famous stages, Dale looked at zen-like ease. Serbian international Nikola Zigic was presented with a great chance to sweep the ball home and crush Blyth’s dreams before they had even begun. All he could do was take a ferocious swipe, which he skied out of Croft Park.

Dale was presented with a similarly easy chance moments later, following magnificent work by winger Jarett Rivers. Where an international level striker couldn’t hold his nerve, Dale looked as comfortable as humanly possible, demonstrating the sort of movement that you can’t really teach, before crashing the ball home from close range.

Minutes later he took off on a dancing run following a short free kick, holding players off to his left and maintaining his balance with a ballerina-like elegance as he cut inside onto his stronger right foot and guided the ball home. There was no two ways about it, this was an elite-level goal.

Dale was on a higher plane that moment, his thinking too quick, his directness too much. It was one of those rare footballing moments when everyone knows what’s going to happen, but absolutely nobody has the power to stop it. It was 2-0 to Blyth, at the time 128 places lower on the football pyramid.

For the people of Blyth, this was a familiar sight, Dale had been showcasing this prowess for years. Alternating between cold spells to full on scoring streaks, he was the man who Blyth looked to for inspiration, whether it be a wet Wednesday against Whitby Town or the dizzying heights of the FA Cup third round, Dale had always consistently chipped in with goals across his now 599 games for the club, playing either as a striker or shunted out to the wing.

To the average football fan there was an air of novelty and intrigue reminiscent of a bygone age, how can someone be so good and yet so unknown to the masses.

Finding information about Dale seemed to be like hacking through a dense undergrowth of misleads – no assists data, no chances created, his only playing history was playing for a pub team called “The Balloon” before signing for Blyth many moons ago, and a brief spell at Whitley Bay.

It seemed cruelly apt that as soon as Dale exploded onto the national consciousness with his two wonderful strikes, he vanished almost immediately. The man who played for “The Balloon” had been inflated briefly, before going pop.

Ultimately, Blyth couldn’t sustain their lead, giving into more established rivals who wore them into submission. Their 2-0 advantage dissipated into a 2-3 deficit and it was hard to feel anything other than deep sympathy for Blyth.

There was a script here, and Birmingham stubbornly refused to play their part. The exceptional Spartans didn’t deserve this, especially not their talisman, Robbie Dale.

In a competition steeped in folklore, where we fetishize Ronnie Radford’s giant-killing moment of genius more than a cup-final winning goal, it seemed Dale was destined for the life of a deity.

On this occasion, Dale was the hero, but most crucially, he wasn’t the victor. So slim are the margins between success and failure that Dale’s story was consigned to the life of a footnote in a local football magazine or a pub-trivia question, rather than immortalised in English footballing history, ala Radford.

It seemed to be poetically unjust that instead of fielding phone calls to Real Madrid asking for a trial, Dale trundled into his mother’s pub in Gosforth the next day for an 11am shift.

These sorts of incidents show that in a sport oft-accused of being detached from reality, there are still examples of crushing realism. It sounds like an odd superhero movie plot, pulling pints under a covert identity midweek, before revealing his true superpowers on matchdays.

This coming season will mark Dale’s 600th game for Blyth, where he has become a synonym for the club. He’s their captain, their talisman and loved by all. Blyth may be unglamorous and mostly grey, but for 90 minutes, whenever Robbie Dale is gliding around Croft Park, you are guaranteed blistering sunshine.

The Author

Will Bryan

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